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Sarah Thornton. Photo: Elīna Sproģe

Art World as Detective 0

Interview with Sarah Thornton, author of  “Seven Days in the Art World” - one of the best books on contemporary art

Interviewed by Elīna Sproģe


Material produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation

After receiving her baccalaureate in art history, the Canadian Sarah Thornton went to London to continue her studies in sociology; she has now spent the last ten years carefully following the contemporary art scene and writing about the art market for publications such as The Economist, Artforum and The Guardian, among others.

By observing and absorbing, and through collecting “evidence” and all manner of relevant details, she came up with an ethnographic study on the social history of present-day art – published as her 2008 book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. The four years of research put into the book culminated in an anthropological overview of the art world arranged in a framework of seven days, much like the biblical story of the creation of the world. Each “day” peels back the outer layer of a specific institution, revealing its inner hierarchy and main characters – with all of their habits, hopes, vices and interpersonal relationships. Quotes from art collectors, art dealers, curators, artists, art students, gallerists and auction-house personnel are all melded together into a sort of documentary novel that makes the reader feel as if he or she is right there, in the middle of everything that's going on. In turning the pages, you will find yourself at New York's Rockefeller Plaza, in the hallways of Christie's auction house mere moments before Andy Warhol's “Mustard Race Riot” (1963) will be sold for a record-breaking 15.1 million dollars; in the studio of German-born painter Tomma Abts on the evening before she is presented with the 2006 Turner Prize – the mother lode of artistic awards; at the publishing headquarters of Artforum magazine, discussing the role of the art critic in today's society with editor-in-chief Tim Griffin (2003-2010); and in the Tokyo studio of multi-medium artist Takashi Murakami, as he's preparing for his first retrospective, ©MURAKMI, at Los Angeles' MOCA.

The New York Times has called “Seven Days in the Art World” one of the best books on contemporary art. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and in September 2014 it comes out in Latvian, under the wings of the Latvian publishing house Neputns.

At the beginning of this summer, had the opportunity to meet up with Sarah Thornton in London. We talked about her journey that led to the writing of “Seven Days in the Art World”, as well as its structure and relevancy today. We also spoke about her latest book, “33 Artists in 3 Acts”, which will come out in the UK this October (the US release is slated for November); it has already been translated into German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Thornton had just received her first copy shortly before our meeting, and remarked that she hopes that it will soon come out in Latvian, too.

How did you end up studying art history? Did you have any specific goals at the time – in terms of a professional career, that is?

My mother studied art history, and to take up these studies felt natural. I really loved it! She was a ceramist, then quit that and went to university as a mature student after she had already had two children. I was in high school, so I used to go to her lectures. My mother always took me to museums. I started out wanting to be an academic, so I went straight on through my BA, MA (a one-year diploma in Communication Studies) and PhD.

I read a book called “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” (1979), by Dick Hebdige, when I was at the end of my art history degree, and I became captivated by popular culture, so I slid down the cultural hierarchy and did my PhD on dance clubs and raves [Sarah Thornton. “Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital”, first published in 1995 – E.S.]. A lot of my interests as a sort of social-art historian can be fulfilled by looking at popular spheres. I’ve always been interested in cultural hierarchies, contextual frameworks and institutions, taste and social roles. After I completed my PhD, I taught for a while, and after that I thought – actually, contemporary art still interests me more than anything else – and I went back to it.

Have you ever thought about becoming an artist yourself?

I really identify with artists, and I enjoy seeing the parallels between being a writer and an artist – the similar problems we face creatively. But I’ve never actually aspired to be an artist myself. That’s partly because my métier – my craft, so to speak – is words. I feel that I’m quick-sighted and I’m good at understanding other people’s visual work, but I’m not especially good at making things. I’ve certainly never had the patience to draw. Maybe I could have become a better photographer if I had tried harder, but mostly, my means of expression is language.

Did studying sociology make an impact on the way you see art history?

Absolutely! When I returned to the art world after obtaining a PhD, which involved ethnography and research through interviews and participant observation, it became clear to me that I could apply this way of seeing to the art world.

With “Seven Days in the Art World”, I aimed to write the book I would have loved to have read as an art history student. In the 1980s, the majority of art history departments studied the past, and the most current art you could study was, maybe, Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art – stuff that was already 20 or 30 years old.

I studied at Concordia University in Montreal, which has an art school. I was lucky that some key art historians there were looking at the work being made at the time, especially feminist art historians. So, I studied artists like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Barbara Kruger and Andrea Fraser – as their work was being made. That was unusual because art history in those days really was “history”!

Well, it still functions this way in many places, including Riga!

Really? There’s been a dramatic shift in the Anglo–American world, so in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, art history students are now studying contemporary art.


Sometimes it feels like it’s almost taboo in academic circles!

I think that part of the problem is that most students want to study contemporary art; they want to understand what’s going on in their time, amongst their age group or amongst artists who are a little bit older than them. They’re not as interested in their grandparents' culture.

I’m really delighted to be a sociologist of art instead of an art historian. There aren’t that many of us. There is a really important tradition of sociology of art in France, and there is some very interesting work being done at the University of Chicago, but sociologists of art are a rarer species. I love art history and I still love to read well-researched, well-written art historical books, but for me, the sociology of art allows me to infiltrate what’s happening at the moment, and it provides me with the tools I need for understanding what’s going on behind the scenes. I find it exciting to research in a rigorous academic manner, but to write in an accessible and popular way.

That’s important because the world you’re writing about is mostly inaccessible!

Yes; if I’m investigating a world that is exclusive, it becomes a point of a principle that I should write about it in as inclusive a manner as I can. It makes the writing more meaningful to me. Back when I was an undergraduate with the opportunity to study contemporary art, I didn’t have any sense of its context, so that’s the reason why I was thinking about “Seven Days in the Art World” as a book that I would have liked to have read myself. Understanding the mechanisms of how art arrives in a museum – the ways that artists obtain gallery representation and work with curators, critics and collectors – is essential.

A lot of the writing about contemporary art is very inaccessible – full of jargon and convoluted sentences. Art criticism is often arcane, insular and/or pseudo-intellectual. It’s a part of the way that new art is validated. I write about that in chapter five [“Seven Days in the Art World”, Chapter 5: The Magazine – E.S.].

Do you think that this is the reason why your book stands the test of time? Six years have passed, and “Seven Days in the Art World” is still being translated and published in different countries around the world. 

When I was writing “Seven Days”, I saw it as a history of the present. Also, I tried to reveal some of the deeper social structures and re-occurring patterns. And the thing is, those patterns are still in place. So, yeah, that particular auction took place in November 2004 [“Seven Days in the Art World”, Chapter 1: The Auction – E.S.], but when you go to an auction today, the whole structure is very similar. The only difference is that the prices are higher, and maybe the names of the artists have changed a little, but not much – you still have Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons in the top spots. Basically, the logistics and the ideologies are the same.

And their general principles keep on continually repeating themselves!

Exactly! I see the art world as a Venn diagram of squabbling subcultures. And the subcultures are still somewhat in place – there’s the market people, the curators who hate the market, the artists who love the market, the artists who hate the market, and the artists who pretend that they don’t like the market, but are actually trying to play the game and sell things.

And that’s also probably one reason why “Seven Days in the Art World” continues to be read; it’s actually used as a teaching text in quite a few universities and art schools, particularly in America.

How did interviewing become a base for this anthropological, even cinematic, approach to storytelling?

History tells stories, art history tells stories; sociology doesn’t tend to tell stories, but ethnography, which comes out of anthropology, uses narratives. I think my imagination was captured by the tradition of anthropology in which they tell ethnographic tales.

I think people remember stories better than they remember expository arguments. For example, you set out a complex argument with twelve different stages – it’s very hard for somebody to sit down and repeat those twelve points. It’s something about the way our brains are wired, because when you tell a story, it’s much more memorable. People are more likely to remember twelve plot points.

When I was thinking about being educational as well as entertaining, I decided to try to have narrative arcs throughout each chapter, and themes and characters that would recur in order to stitch the chapters together. So, you meet a couple of dealers at the art fair in Basel, and then you meet them again in Tokyo or in Venice, and that familiarity is satisfying to the reader, as well as true to the structure the art world.

You've said many times that exploring multiple opinions of what art actually is, and how it works, is more appealing to you than explaining what you think of it yourself.

For me, it’s much more engaging and exciting to read a book where the reader is the judge, rather than having an author who’s constantly telling you what to think. I’m not keen on authorial voices that nag: “Oh, this is good. This is bad. Look at this! Don’t you think that’s shitty?” I’d rather present the reader with a carefully researched picture and then say: “You decide!” Of course, in the English edition, there’s a lot of gentle humor (I can never know if it survives through translation) that suggests that I might disagree with the person I am quoting, or maybe we should question what they’re saying, etc. It’s fairly subtle; I’m not hammering anybody over the head.

I do have my own personal taste in art, but I don’t find my likes and dislikes to be that interesting. Those kinds of value judgments aren’t what make art important or relevant. I’m into discovering how art moves through the world, how it functions for other people, how it plays into people’s taste cultures, how they use it as marks of distinction, how being a part of this hierarchy gives someone a sense of self-esteem or status, or meaning in their lives.

So, it’s more about how art makes us feel, and what it makes us think about?

Not liking something can offer a more interesting experience than liking something. Some art that is regarded as being “beautiful” in a traditional sense, and about which one might ask: “What’s there not to like?”, can be less thought-provoking than the stuff you loathe. Loathing can be more meaningful. There are different kinds of loathing – a kind of revulsion towards what you feel as repetitive, but then there’s, like, the revulsion of something that’s outside your taste. It’s good to analyze the feeling, rather than just simply react.

I’m a writer, I’m a journalist, I’m an ethnographer, I’m a sociologist, but I never call myself a critic – even though other people occasionally do, just because I write about art. It’s important not to be trapped in your own taste – then you can’t investigate other people’s taste in an analytical way.

What do you say about the desire to own specific works of art and build collections?

Some collectors buy according to investment criteria. Others have socially-driven reasons, which relate to having a taste that is comparable (or competitive) to their friends or other collectors. Some people buy in very idiosyncratic personal ways that relate to their own psychological drives. Some collectors are very knowledgeable about art and have a deep intellectual engagement with art history. There are a lot of different models, and often they’re all mixed up. Usually there are several reasons why any collector buys one work of art. There are four boxes you can tick – an intellectual art-historical box, an emotional-psychological box, a social box, and an economic box.

How do you think pure talent blends into the so-called machinery of today's art world?

I think there are many talented people in all of the different roles of the art world. In one of the chapters of the book, Chapter 6: The Studio Visit, Paul Schimmel [at the time, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) – E.S.] says: “Talent is a double-edged sword. What you are given is not really yours. What you work at, what you struggle for, what you have to take command of – that often makes for very good art.” [p. 72]

What you witness when you’re observing these people close-up is how hard they work. It’s always a complicated combination of having a clear sense of something to say, and a massive amount of hard work. Even the artists who look like they’re totally lazy, usually aren’t. Maurizio Cattelan has a reputation for being a total slacker, but that guy works all the time! He’s up at six o'clock, he does a hundred laps in the pool, he’s back at his desk by 8am, he doesn’t drink during the week. He’s on it! Or at least he was, when he was an artist. 

Talent is mystified; it’s a romantic notion. Being a successful artist is more about faith in oneself, combined with hard work. Any artist is going to have a talent in something – because the spectrum of what can be art is so broad. It will turn out that even if you can’t draw, you can at least tell other people what to do (like Hirst and Koons do). Neither of them are masterful draftsmen, but they know how to conceptualize things and execute them through others. They’ve found the root to making art through their talents.

You mentioned Cattelan, who doesn't have an art education in a traditional sense. Is having an artist's diploma still essential these days?

Most art education is completely out to lunch! I feel this more strongly now than I did when I wrote “Seven Days in the Art World”. At that time, I felt captivated by Michael Asher [an American conceptual artist and professor who used to lead an important artist seminar at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts), which is the setting for Chapter 2: The Crit – E.S.] and his “post-studio” crit* class, partly because he was associated with an institutional critique, and my book is about institutions. Each chapter – The Auction, The Crit, The Fair, The Prize, The Magazine, The Studio, The Biennale – are one day in the life of one of these institutions.

It was obvious that in that crit class at CalArts, students learned a lot that would contribute to their success. It was a ritualistic learning experience that gave them more than just knowledge or information.

However, I interviewed 130 artists for my new book, “33 Artists in 3 Acts”, and I feel that fifty percent of what artists learn in art school is useful, and that thirty percent is not just useless, but an actual obstacle to achievement! Depending on the school, this thirty percent is mostly romantic, out-of-date bullshit! (Laughs)

Could you give an example of a frequent obstacle?

I still stand by everything that’s in “Seven Days in the Art World”, and I wouldn’t change a word, and I do believe in that CalArts model. But the fact that it is taboo to discuss anything related to the art market and the art world in most art schools, makes it easier for them to become victims of the market upon graduation. It needs to be a topic of conversation, so that they can develop individual tactics to survive in the real world.

In a lot of art schools, artist-students don’t want to talk about the market in front of their professors because they fear being perceived as inauthentic. But in this day and age, when the market is a monster looming over artists' lives (especially younger artists), it makes sense to talk about the elephant in the room. It doesn’t mean you’re encouraging artists to produce sellable paintings, or to think in terms of profitability. Sometimes it’s about coming up with a strategy that is against the market, but you have to understand it first – how to get over, around or inside that monster!

When artists are ill-educated about the socio-economic world that awaits them (or that ignores them) upon graduation, they can make a lot of not very intelligent decisions about how much work they produce, what materials they use, what dealers they work with, etc.

I believe that an artist’s work is everything they do, not just the objects they make. Their “work”, in the strict sense, is extremely important, but their “work”, in the broad sense, is very relevant to whether their works see the light of day and get exhibited.

How does a poor local market affect art development?

I’m not sure, because I haven’t done that research in any systematic way. In “Seven Days In the Art World”, I looked at places where the art world was very strong. Actually, you could say that Japan has a weak art market despite the large size of the country, but Takashi Murakami was my case study for that chapter, and he is totally integrated into a Western model – the way he plays his game is self-consciously very Warholian. [In Chapter 6 of “Seven Days In the Art World”, “The Studio Visit”, Thornton meets Takashi Murakami and visits the artist studios that run under his company, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., in both Tokyo and New York – E.S.]

In “33 Artists in 3 Acts”, I have a scene (in Act I) set in Santiago, Chile, with a cult Latin American artist named Eugenio Dittborn. Santiago has no real art market to speak of, and most artists teach. They have some museums and galleries, and a desire to have an international audience, so often times artists travel. That is definitely one of the dynamics. The art world is international, and artists with international careers tend to lead international lives.

If someone like Gabriel Orozco, a Mexican artist, would have just stayed in Mexico City, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today. The fact is, he went to Madrid, he went to Paris, New York, and Berlin, and he put himself in dialogue with what was going on internationally, and then he developed an international network. Now Mexico City has a pretty vibrant art world and a pretty strong collector base, but there’s still a stigma there attached to being a local artist or a national artist, versus an international artist.

But if society is not trained to look at contemporary art, and how to understand it, one cannot deny that this will be reflected in every next generation of young artists!

I think this problem exists in most cultures, except for the German-speaking countries – Germany, Austria, Switzerland – which have the strongest contemporary art tradition in terms of the general public's awareness. Every small town in Germany has a kunsthalle or kunstverein, bigger cities have kunstmuseums and kunsthauses. This broad assimilation of contemporary art probably has something to do with the aftermath of World War II, and the Germans' sense that they weren’t interested in nationalism or the past. To embrace a forward-looking, international avant-garde movement was appealing.

In Britain, they have long loved their armor, their country houses, their old master paintings. That’s shifting, but definitely up until 20 years ago, that was the hub of British visual culture, and there is still a massive amount of incomprehension around contemporary art in Britain. People confuse art and craft; they think art is all about craftsmanship and doing it well with your hands, but that’s not what contemporary art has been about since Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal, and the revolution in contemporary art that it brought about.

In that case, how is it possible that today art museums and auction houses are often referred to as substitutes for the church?

I think it’s really hard for religion to be relevant in our times – in a globalized Instagram- or tweeting-culture. Contemporary art does seem to tap into our time much more than traditional religion, and it does seem to give us tools and structures with which to think. Going to church is about belief and the search for meaning, but it’s also a social activity – a lot of people have their whole community through church, which is similar to the art world. Also, both religion and contemporary art require leaps of faith. Any given art work asks you to believe in it, and that usually involves believing in the artist, which then takes you into a whole set of assumptions about the maker of the work.

I suspect that the vast majority of believers doubt certain things – you believe in God, but you don’t believe in the Virgin birth, or that Muhammad really rose to heaven on a horse. (Laughs) It’s a struggle between what you know to be the truth, and a story. That is something that both worlds have in common.

I’ve never really sought out this metaphor of religion, but it keeps coming back. When I was doing research for “33 Artists in 3 Acts”, I was totally surprised at the number of times artists spontaneously brought up religious metaphors when describing their lives and their work – martyrs, saints, God, heaven. So, I do think that they are parallel spheres even if, or perhaps because, contemporary art is an atheist’s world. In New York, there’s a strong relationship between the Jewish community and the art world. I think that’s because many Jews lost faith in God after the Holocaust, so art became an alternative belief system and a source of community.

Could you tell us some more about your new book, “33 Artists in 3 Acts”? How did you transition from a seven-day structure to one with three acts?

Every writer has their strengths and their weaknesses. I have always thought there were two things I was good at: I am a very tenacious researcher, and I am thoughtful about structure. I usually over-research. For example, for “Seven Days in the Art World”, I interviewed 250 different people, even though not all of them were named in the book; it gave me the ability to create those narrative arcs because I had a lot of choice. I’ve always loved having a strong solid structure in my work, and I think “Seven Days” turned out like that. It’s a clean, simple way of giving readers a breadth and depth of experience that is not taxing.

With “33 Artists in 3 Acts”, I also interviewed many more artists than I needed to. Some of the recurring characters, who are set up in opposition to each other, are Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst and the feminist performance artist Andrea Fraser (in my book she’s the “anti-Hirst”), Maurizio Cattelan and Cindy Sherman, and the Dunham-Simmons family (painter Carroll Dunham, photographer Laurie Simmons and their daughters, Grace and Lena Dunham), to name a few.

Before I decided what my structure would be, I interviewed around a hundred artists and then saw what kind of themes were coming up; I chose Politics, Kinship (or Family) and Craft. These three themes were the ones that complicated the question – What is an artist? These themes challenged artists’ identities and credibility – Are you an artist or a craftsman? Are you an artist or an activist? Is that adapted or created? Are you a mother pretending to keep up your studio practice, or are you an authentic artist?

By the end of the book, the reader has a strong sense of who these artists think that they are, and what is an artist today. It makes sense when you read the book! (Laughs)

Did working on “33 Artists in 3 Acts” make you come up with your own kind of definitions for questions that had already appeared in “Seven Days in the Art World”, such as – What is an artist? and, What makes an artist a good one?

The definition of an artist is like a kaleidoscope. You have to read the book to see the play of revealing reflections – because defining what an artist actually is, in a single sentence, is like revealing who the killer is in a murder mystery!

*  “A “crit” is a seminar in which student-artists present their work for collective critique.” Sarah Thornton. “Seven Days in the Art World”. Chapter 2: The Crit, p. 43.